HL Deb 03 August 1972 vol 334 cc536-40

7.29 p.m.

THE LORD BISHOP OF CHESTER rose to move, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Deaconesses and Lay Ministry Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent. The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for bringing you down from the matters of high policy, with which we have been occupied during these past hours, to the very humble matters which are contained in this Measure. The reason for my having to do so is one which I have had to explain to your Lordships' House on a number of occasions. The Church of England has the power to legislate for its own domestic affairs by means of Canons which are made under Royal licence. The conditions, however, that attach to Canons is that they may not vary or be in contradiction to the existing Statute law: and, since the Book of Common Prayer is a part of the Act of Uniformity, when the Church of England wants to alter anything in the Book of Common Prayer, however small and reasonable that change may be, we have first of all to alter the law before we can make a Canon about it. That is why I have to ask for an Affirmative Motion regarding the Deaconesses and Lay Ministry Measure.

The reason for this is that over the past years there has been a considerable movement in the Church of England to employ more and more the services of lay persons in the conduct of divine worship. Already, as a result of action that has been taken under various Measures, readers, both men and women, are permitted to conduct divine worship, to assist in the administration of the Sacrament at Holy Communion and so on. But there are certain things which they are precluded from doing because the Book of Common Prayer orders that the minister shall do them. Therefore we are seeking powers to be able to make Canons which would permit lay persons to take the service of the churching of women in the absence of the minister, to baptise, and, with the good will of those who are responsible, to bury the dead or to read the burial service before, at or after cremation. These things are by the Book of Common Prayer reserved to the minister, but as a result of this Measure it will be possible to allow other persons to perform these services.

My Lords, this is an enabling Measure, and it is the intention of the General Synod first of all to give these permissions to deaconesses, who are women who have been ordained to that function. We already have a draft Canon that has gone through most of its stages in the General Synod and is awaiting only the passage of this Measure before we can formally promulgate it as a Canon. The contents of the Canon are set out in the comments and explanations of the Legislative Committee of the General Synod to the Ecclesiastical Committee of the two Houses of Parliament. No doubt later on we shall want to extend these powers by Canon, but, as I say, at the present time it is the intention of the General Synod to pass a Canon to permit all deaconesses to perform these functions. I hope therefore that your Lordships' House will give this Measure an Affirmative Resolution. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Deaconesses and Lay Ministry Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.—(The Lord Bishop of Chester.)

7.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is indebted to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester for the careful way in which he has explained the object of this Measure, and I feel confident that I am speaking for all my noble friends on this side of the House if I say that our general approach to this question is that, Parliament having given the Church a very wide measure of freedom to legislate on all matters affecting its own domestic affairs, this House, as on other occasions, will, almost without exception. wish to endorse any Measure of this kind to which the Church of England, acting through the General Synod, has given approval with substantial unanimity.

I should like to ask the right reverend Prelate, merely as a matter of interest, two or three questions which occur to me arising out of the comments and explanations by the Legislative Committee. I gather from what he said that the intention is to pass a Measure which will give deaconesses certain rights. But of course the Measure that we are considering goes further than that. I think it would perhaps remove any doubt if the right reverend Prelate could confirm me in which I believe to be the present state of the law. Am I right in thinking that at the present time in the Church of England no sanction is required to enable a minister, with the consent of the Bishop, to invite any lay person, man or woman to preach at divine service. I mention that because I am sure that the right reverend Prelate would not wish it to be thought that this Measure in any way takes away any existing right.

Similarly, the Measure will enable deaconesses and others, in the absence of the priest, to baptise. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate will confirm that, as the law of the Church of England stands at the moment, in cases of urgency the service of baptism, which, after all, is one of the two major sacraments, can be performed in private by anybody, layman or indeed a woman, and from time to time it happens that in hospitals a doctor or a nurse performs the right of baptism, which more often than not is then followed by a service, not of baptism, but of reception into the Church. I take it that nothing in this Measure is intended to take away the existing law in that respect.

Then, a further provision will enable deaconesses and others, as it says, "with the goodwill of the persons responsible"—and I suppose that means the relatives—to bury the dead. I take it that that is intended to give power not merely to bury the dead—because I suppose there is nothing to prevent anybody from performing a service of burial at any time—but to enable others than those who are at present entitled to do so to recite the service of burial for the dead which is contained in the Book of Common Prayer, being, as the right reverend Prelate said, part of the common law of England. No doubt there is nothing to prevent any other form of service being said by anybody at any time, or no service being conducted at all.

Finally, my Lords, it is proposed that we should authorise the publication of the banns of marriage at morning and evening prayer by deaconesses and others. That seems to me to be an eminently desirable permission, in line with the general intention of this Measure, as I understand it, which is to facilitate others than ordained ministers to assist the ordained clergy in performing services and taking part in services of divine worship in the Church of England. With those few words, I hope that the House will support the Measure proposed by the right reverend Prelate.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fletcher, for the kind and helpful way in which he has approached this Measure. He has asked me four questions. The first concerns the right of any lay person to preach in a church. This is controlled by one of the miscellaneous provisions Measures which came previously before your Lordships' House and gives permission for readers and other lay persons to preach so long as they have been authorised. This Measure in no way detracts from those powers that already exist.

With regard to baptism, this Measure refers to the reciting of the Service of Baptism in the Book of Commotion Prayer—for of course the noble Lord is quite right when he says that the Sacrament of baptism is the most open of Christian Sacraments, even to the extent that it may be validly administered even by a person who is not a Christian. Very frequently, as the noble Lord said, a nurse or doctor in a case of emergency will administer a valid baptism, and that is then followed by reception into the Church. So this Measure would enable a deaconess or a lay person who was authorised by Canon to use the service in the Book of Common Prayer which at the present time they are not technically permitted to use. The noble Lord referred to the right to burial, and I would draw attention to the fact that the Measure refers to some of the burial Acts to which we have had to make ourselves fit on this occasion. The Service for the Burial of the Dead is referred to in the Book of Common Prayer according to the rites of the Church of England.

Finally, as regards the publishing of banns of marriage, the noble Lord will notice that this is not in the Measure itself but in the draft Canon of which we have given notice, since this does not need authority from Parliament in this particular respect. I understand that this is something which has to be authorised by means of the Marriage Act. A reader at the present time has the right to read the banns in church and this Measure will extend that right to deaconesses or to other lay persons if the Canons so permit.

On Question, Motion agreed to.